In October 2005, two of my very best friends in the world married one another, picked up, and moved to a ridiculously affordable house in Ohio. Sad as this makes me, it means that their visits to New York are super-special times for me, and their most recent visit, about three weeks back, was a blur of good times, wonderful company, and fabulous food.
On Friday night, Nick and Louisa (For those are their names!) visited Ouest (you can read Louisa's thoughts about their former neighborhood haunt here), and on Saturday night, we met up for a 9:45 reservation at Per Se. After hugs and kisses over fizzy water in the lounge (not the bar, ahem), we were seated promptly (a few minutes early, to tell the truth) at a table next to the window.
I'll start by telling you about the service, which was really quite fantastic. Gracious, attentive, and good-humored, they became more familiar (one server, a woman, saw me grinning at my foie gras and said, "I know! Isn't it exciting?") as they sensed our openness to it, and chatted with us about the wine, the petit fours, and the copies of the menu I requested toward the end of the night. The room itself is subdued, all earth tones and widely spaced tables, with the emphasis on the view of the Columbus Circle fountain four stories below, and the twinkling lamplights of Central Park beyond.
And now for the food.
Nick and I ordered the Chef's Tasting Menu, and Louisa opted for the Tasting of Vegetables. Our amuses were the trademark tuile cones; mine was filled with red onion crème fraiche and topped with a scoop of smoked salmon, and Louisa's was beets with eggplant caviar. The salmon was chopped so fine that it was almost a paste - but still made up of separate, luscious bits - and the rich, tangy crème fraiche set it off marvelously, helped along by the delicate crunch of the tuile.
Next up, another of Keller's famous dishes, "Oysters and Pearls," a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and white sturgeon caviar. This dish, which I've heard described as tasting like "salty butter," was wonderful. The different textures contrasted nicely (the tapioca here is larger, similar to the bubbles in bubble tea), and the caviar was subtly salty and rich. It's a soup course, though in reality it's more a puddingy chowder.
The "salad" course was a terrine of foie gras served with a peach gelee and some other little goodies, including almonds, pickled ramps, piquillo peppers, and a beautiful slice of toasted brioche, eggy and fragrant. The texture of this terrine was, as expected of any Keller dish, refined and silky smooth. The flavor, intense, was nicely offset by the accompaniments, the ramps (I do love pickled onions) and peppers (ditto) in particular.
I was not looking forward to the first fish course, since I really just am not a big fish eater. I love my shellfish and crustaceans, but the scaly guys have never done it for me, particularly when cooked. This one, Pacific orange marlin served a la plancha (simply seared on a flat grill) with a curry-infused oil, sounded particularly icky to me (I'm not a big curry fan, either). I was soooo wrong. The fish, meaty and tender, was like a mild (I know, MILD?) tuna, and the tiniest hint of curry was actually light and refreshing. Big thumbs up.
Second fish course: butter poached lobster paired with two of the best things springtime has to offer - asparagus and morels. There's not a lot to say about this other than that butter-poached lobster is succulent, sinful, and right up my alley.
The poultry course was poussin served with turnips, kohlrabi and apples. Very good, every ingredient shining through, and very much a chicken dish - not dull - I do love chicken - but not as standout as the others.
For our meat course, Nick and I both chose the degustation of lamb (poor planning on our part, I suppose), which was very interesting. A little tour of the lamb, it featured, among other cuts, belly, shoulder (my favorite), chop, and rillettes. The peas and radishes alongside (again, the bounty of spring was everywhere) were sharp, crisp contrasts to the ever-so-slightly gamey meat.
Next, the cheese course. I feel about cheese the way I feel about fish - I love some cheeses, but I can leave about 75% of them. This one was no exception. It was a Chabichou (soft, rindless unpasteurized goat cheese), served with tapenade and artichokes (another two things I could really do without). If you love salty, olive-y things, this is for you. It was not for me. Louisa's cheese, a double-cream cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy, was. It came with pickled strawberries, and the sweet, slightly sour strawberries blended marvelously with the sinfully rich cheese.
Finally, dessert. The first of the two dessert courses (not counting the truffles, petit fours and macarons that came after) was where Nick and I found our strawberries. We had strawberry sorbet with balsamic vinegar and black pepper - wonderful, cool, and refreshing, especially after the cheese. Second, a chocolate brownie (this is, before anything, a very American restaurant) with ganache, coffee cream, and coffee ice cream. The coffee ice cream was bitter, so much so that it tasted like a skunk smells (Nick and Lou concurred, so I'm not crazy), but not in a bad way (really).
In the end, I was thrilled at the meal we had (and I didn't even talk about the wines, which were wonderful - Nick chose, so perhaps he will log on and enlighten us). The parade of food never felt like too much, and came slowly but steadily enough to keep us entertained but not straining to get the bites down. Treated with the kid gloves of classic French techniques, the flavors of every ingredient sang, creating a symphony of fresh, pure American food music. It absolutely ranked among the best meals I've had in my life, at any price point, and I am so glad we went.
After dessert, it was a double espresso, truffles, petit fours, and a package of macarons from Bouchon Bakery (vanilla, carrot cake, and pistachio) for the road. We toddled out, retrieved my menus, and had a bit of trouble with the sliding glass doors - turns out, we weren't befuddled by our excellent feast so much as we were the last people in a locked restaurant.
Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle
Broadway and 60th Street
Photos courtesy of Kiplog.com.